There is an interesting censorship allegation this week after Alec Baldwin walked out on the Emmy telecast in response to the decision by News Corp to cut a joke about CEO Rupert Murdoch and the expanding phone-hacking scandal. Comedians have always been a central part of political speech in the United States as have cartoonists and others who use art or prose to address matters of public interest. The alleged censorship of the material by Fox or News Corp shows, at very best, a lack of judgment by company officials and attorneys.
Baldwin had already recorded the opening segment when he learned that the joke was cut. He wisely withdrew and the company got Leonard Nimoy to retape the segment. I wonder if Nimoy was informed of the reason for the sudden opening.
News Corp immediately denied that it had made the decision and insisted it was done by Fox — though few would find that distinction significant. It is remarkably dim-witted. Fox insists that it simply considered the joke in bad taste. I find that a bit unconvincing that one joke was found in bad taste and it just happened to be about the owner. While this is entertainment, there remains an expectation of free speech and artistic license. It is not a contractually enforceable standard and this is not some constitutional violation. However, it remains a serious allegation of private censorship by the company.
In the end, how did this latest controversy help the company? If the joke was allowed, many would have barely noticed it and those who did would have given credit to the company for allowing such comedic criticism. Instead, Fox officials undermined their own programming and fulfilled stereotypes of a company that uses unacceptable means to maintain power.